Against the Darkmaster: Flight to the Ford

Against the Darkmaster

“Flight to the Ford”

Against the Darkmaster is a reimagining of Iron Crown Enterprises’s 1987 Middle-Earth Role Playing (itself a derivation of its legendary Rolemaster system). The aim here is to roleplay the inciting event that will lead to an epic, overland quest in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Yes, everything is included in this game cocktail (an artifact of power, perilous villains, wondrous foes and allies, uncharted lands).

A few BSers already have played the beginning of “Flight to the Ford” as a one-shot. Those players are welcome again, if they have the interest, for there is nothing “game-breaking” about their meta-knowledge.

Players will have to adopt the role of “heroes” who are inherently good and willing to oppose the nefarious aims of the Darkmaster.

When: Some time next year, after the January BS Convention.

Duration: 3-5 sessions of 3-4 hours

Options for Continuing: I am interested in offering further short campaigns or “books” that emulate later chapters in the Tolkienian heroic journey. These will be scheduled in conformance with any further interest and availability.

Where: Discord and Foundry/Forge



I have no experience with the system aside from a one-shot or two of MERP back in the 80s that I can’t even remember. :slight_smile:

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Yeah, what the Hobbit said.

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Very interested, scheduling issues aside!

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By this timeframe I should be able to make this game.

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I am interested as well!

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I am interested in playing again/continuing for longer, but will defer to new players to give others a shot at the system if there is a lot interested folks.

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I’m pretty sure you’re in, @mgr , if the schedule works out for you! I set max players to nine. I’m sure you all know why.

What is Against the Darkmaster (VsD)? What makes it different from other games?

The Setting
VsD has no “house setting,” but inspirations for an implied setting are Middle-earth from The Lord of the Rings and the many dozens of Tolkien pastiche, which include Shannara, “The Land” from Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Krynn from The Dragonlance Chronicles, and Jordan’s Wheel of Time. As such, there are a few things to keep in mind while playing in a VsD campaign:

Good vs Evil
The PCs most likely are going to be “good” characters taking up arms in a struggle against the unequivocally “Evil” and tyrannical Darkmaster. Since the 1980s, there has been a lot of community discussion that differentiates the “sword & sorcery” subgenre of fantasy from epic, heroic fantasy, and, by these distinctions, VsD falls into the latter category. The PCs are expected to have interests in and fight for something other than themselves, and this distinguishes play in VsD in the following way:

Against the Darkmaster is not a game about exploring underground
labyrinths and slaying monsters for gold and coins. It’s a
game about becoming heroes by making hard choices, following
your Passions despite the dangers, and standing against Evil no
matter the cost.

That said, VsD may have more in common with other fantasy rpgs than otherwise. In accordance with Tolkienian pastiche, in the world of VsD,

  • Ages of Deep Time have risen and fallen, and the ruins of the ancient past dot the landscapes. Some of these past Ages are carefully chronicled, others are all but forgotten.

  • Magic is rare and dangerous:

Those who wield sorcerous power practice their craft with caution,
and often in secret, because they know that magic is a double-
edged weapon, that can easily attract the attention of the
Darkmaster and His minions.

  • The Gods watch from afar:

In a distant age, powerful beings - that someone could have worshipped
as gods - walked the earth, mingling with its inhabitants
and guiding them with their wisdom. But those joyous days are
long gone. For some reason, these beings left for their Immortal
Lands, vowing never to interfere directly with the affairs of
this world again. Their children are left to fend off for themselves
against the coming Darkness. Yet, some say they will return in the
final days, to wage battle against the Darkmaster one last time.

  • Yet, despite the unattainableness of the Gods, the Gods did leave objects of help in their wakes. These supports are uncommon artifacts or powerful and benevolent spirits that may serve as means of aid or succor to the heroes who wrestle mightily against the dark forces of the world. There is Hope in this land, though it oft comes unlooked for…

Characters for Against the Darkmaster (VsD)

Characters in VsD are not unlike characters in other fantasy rpgs: they are built of Stats, Skills, and abilities. Specifically, they have six Stats that are much like the stats, attributes, etc. to be found in many other games. In VsD, these six core Stats are termed Brawn, Swiftness, Fortitude, Wits, Wisdom, and Bearing. You can see how these pretty much track to the six stats/attributes/what-have-you from many other games (and, yes, VsD ultimately has its origins in the Original Game, because VsD’s immediate predecessor is Middle-Earth Role Playing, which is a simplification of Rolemaster, which is a d100 system that grew out of modular house rules for 1e, so…).

Players in this short campaign are free – in fact, if they have the full rules, they are encouraged – to make their own characters. But I also, for speed and convenience, have begun fourteen separate pregens from which players may choose. When I say I have begun them, I mean that I have made recommendations, and there remain decisions for individual players to make. Why I left these gaps will make more sense in a moment.

Okay, let’s get right to it. The form of character generation that I am using is Point Buy or Stat Array. In this method, players assign 50 points, in increments of 5, to each of their six Stats. Go ahead and open up the character sheets for examples of this and some of the other aspects of character creation that I am talking about here. These Stats modify the relevant Skills (and, if this reminds you of certain d20 systems, particularly 3e, hey, you’re totally right, but I would remind you that this is also Rolemaster, and Rolemaster innovated this well before Monte Cook – who also worked on Rolemaster – brought this to 3e – at least I assume it was Monte Cook who did it :wink:). So far so good. Nothing surprising here! Just remember that this is a percentile system; that’s why the numbers are so large.

The other components that define a character are Kins (sometimes called “races,” in many older games), Cultures, Vocations, and Backgrounds (and a few other things that I’m not going to mention at this moment). Kins often result in some Stat increases or decreases and some specific Traits. Cultures award some starting Ranks in some Skills, which is reflective of the character’s apprenticeship among a certain culture. And Vocations award even more Ranks in starting Skills, this time with some player freedom of choice among the rough categories of Skill groupings. These categories are Armor, Combat, Adventuring, Roguery, Lore, Body, and Spell Lores. At lower Levels, each Rank placed into a Skill awards 5 points to the Skill, i.e., a cumulative +5 to a d100 roll.

And that’s how the game is played: roll a d100 and add your total Skill bonus (derived from Stat, Skill, and miscellaneous modifiers). Oh, yeah, and the roll is Open-Ended. What this means is that any roll of 5 or lower requires another d100 roll, and this one is subtracted from the original roll before any Skill bonus or modifiers are added. Alternatively, if the roll is over 96, a d100 is rolled again and added to the result before any bonuses or modifiers are added. And you guessed it: if one happens, on this second roll, to roll 96+ yet again, yep, roll and add again.

Action Resolution
If the net result of the die roll, after modifiers, is 4 or less, the character experiences a Critical Failure. 5-74 is just normal Failure. 75-99 is a Partial Success. 100-174 is Success. And 175+ is Outstanding Success. I’m not going to define precisely what these results mean here. I figure you get the idea.

And, oh yeah, combat is way different than this, but I’m not going to get into that right now, either.

If you have any specific questions, I would love to hear them. What really has the potential to make characters unique in this system are how Ranks are assigned to particular Skills. And Background options.

To explain the flexibility of Skill development, each time a character Levels up, that character gets more Development Points to assign to Skills; no one Skill can be increased by more than 2 Ranks at a time, and Points can be assigned out of one category into another on a 2:1 basis. This creates some hard and, in some cases, “suboptimal” choices for players who foresee their characters progressing in certain ways or taking up Skills as suggested by the direction in which the campaign is going. Their characters’ Vocations may not necessarily specialize in these new directions, but that doesn’t prevent characters from developing in them – it just costs them a little extra effort. Sometimes a lot of extra effort. That’s the price of story-making!

Skill development is pretty straightforward, and, when leveling up, a player needs nothing more than what already is on the character sheet. Background options diversify the character even more and more particularly, but, unlike many other games, this proves to be without much additional burden, because these choices are made just once, at character creation. Every Kin is awarded a certain number of Background Points that can be spent on qualities that add benefit and diversity to the character, and that is the only thing the player will have to remember about them for the rest of the campaign. Here is an example:

Battle Hardened
You survived many battles, and carry their scars on your body,
proving your valor and your worth as a seasoned warrior.
Minor (cost 1 BP): You have an impressive scar somewhere
on your body; describe it. Increase your starting HPs by 15,
and the Max HP for your Kin by 10.
Major (cost 3 BPs): You also never suffer the penalty for being

The Kin with the most Background Points to spend is Man (yes, this game uses a fairly antiquated designation for Human – intentionally, I believe, so as to evoke VsD’s literary inspirations), which awards 6 points. Using the example above, 1 point could be spent on the Background, which confers the benefits of the 1-point spend as described, or 3 points can be spent, in which case the character would enjoy the benefits of the 1-point spend and what is described in the 3 point spend. If the character still has other points to spend, other Backgrounds may be selected.

These Backgrounds are chosen one time, at character creation. Throughout the campaign, the player is expected to keep track of nothing more than the character’s equipment, the character’s developing Skills, and the story. I guess I am saying that VsD may provide, for some gamers, just enough diversity and gamist choice without overburdening the group with elaborate Feat or Talent trees that may change or adjust at every level – and require a lot of bookkeeping and memory.

I’ll keep trying to generate interest in this game by writing more about VsD, but, if you would like to get a closer look at more of the rules on your own, please grab the QuickStart for free right here.


Haven’t been paying attention to the forums, it seems. You know I’m in if you’ll have me, @Gabe.

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Character Passions and Drive… and the Darkmaster

I’m back, and this time I’m picking up with an explanation of character features that I willfully left out last time. These are Passions and Drive. And this discussion naturally concludes with an articulation of the Darkmaster itself.

Against the Darkmaster (VsD) is a dangerous game for PCs. This is because of its often “swingy” d100 mechanic – made even more dramatic by open-ended rolls! – and the Critical Hit tables. Therefore an essential feature of this game is Drive Points for PCs. Players, in VsD, get opportunities to earn or generate Drive Points for their PCs by playing to their character Passions.


There are three of them: Nature, Allegiance, and Motivation. Hopefully these are fairly self-explanatory: Nature is what one’s character is like in terms of personality; Allegiance is what bonds the character has, or whom one serves; and Motivation is what the character wants, or what it needs to do. This seems pretty straightforward, like many another roleplaying game, except that, in VsD, playing to one’s Passions results in the possibility of earning Drive Points, and, as has been suggested, Drive Points – and their use – are fairly essential for character survivability. Therefore it is paramount that PC Passions be directly relevant to the campaign, because applicable Passions will result in plenty of opportunities to earn Drive.

Every time a player roleplays a character according to a Passion in a manner that adds an interesting story beat or element into the adventure or otherwise puts the character in danger as a result of this Passion the PC earns one Drive Point. Moreover, I will allow PCs to start with one extra Drive Point if one of their Passions is a direct line from a metal song, though we want to ensure that the Passion still is relevant for the campaign. This is why Passions tend to be constructed in deep communication with the other players in the game and, most importantly, the GM.

Here is an example of the Passions I am following for my character Ganga Wyrmleaper in a campaign in which I am playing. And, actually, sharing them here reminds me that my character Passions have changed during play, and this is how the game is meant to be played: characters in fiction are dynamic; they are in roleplaying games, as well. Players are encouraged to find features of the fiction with which their characters meaningfully can engage. Though all changes should be formally approved by the GM, in most cases, any changed Passions need only be mentioned to the GM for the purposes of awarding Drive Points.

Ganga Wyrmleaper [surname actually changed from “Alfrede” as a result of gameplay – you guessed it! – Ganga leaped into the mouth of a dragon]

Nature: “I will serve as thine guard” [a line from the power metal band Eternal Champion]
Allegiance: To the “smoothest stone,” a Star-elf child, who tended my wounds and whom I unwittingly betrayed [this occurred in game; the “smoothest stone” is a literal smooth stone that the child gave Ganga as a token of her favor]
Motivation: To slay Gowren the Destroyer [a dragon] before he catches up to my smoothest stone [again a development from within the game]


Drive is a “bennie,” a metacurrency, a “Hero Point,” a “Fate Point,” a “Fortune Point,” i.e., similar to many another metacurrency in many another roleplaying game. Drive has a number of mechanical uses, but, broadly speaking, they have the power to improve character ability, minimize damage to the PC, and introduce story elements. Sometimes players feel the necessity to hoard Drive Points, most obviously because Drive has the ability to mitigate damage to the PC, but also because spending five Drive Points at one time “unlocks” particularly spectacular results. Whatever the case, players are encouraged to spend Drive because, for each ten points of Drive spent, the character gets the opportunity to develop new mechanical abilities (in careful consultation with the GM) during “downtime” between adventures. This feature is called the character’s Heroic Path. Moreover, this is an aspect of the game that has direct relevance in the event of PC death. If a PC expires, the new PC begins with half of the value of the previous PC’s Heroic Path, rounded up. Additionally, the new character usually begins play at the same level of the lowest-level character in the party.

The Darkmaster

I bring up the Darkmaster in this exploration of PC Passions and Drive because, since Passions are so integral to game play, in a game called Against the Darkmaster, it would make sense that something about the central antagonist in the campaign should be understood.

First, it should be made clear that (just as in its ultimate antecedent, The Lord of the Rings) the PCs are unlikely ever to face the Darkmaster directly. That doesn’t mean that the character and abilities of the Darkmaster are not important. To the contrary, these often define the various other adversaries, the lieutenants and horrors, with which the PCs must contend. Every Darkmaster is different. And to aid the GM in created a new Darkmaster for a new campaign, a number of rollable tables are provided. I will create one now. It may be that I use this as the Darkmaster in the upcoming campaign. So prospective players can consider these features of the ultimate antagonist and perhaps construct some Passions to better accommodate play.


Every Darkmaster has an Epithet constructed of the parts The - Subject - Of/From. Let’s roll now, a d100 for each of these components. I get:

The Horned - Spirit/Ghost - of Despair

Hmm. What are you getting for an image? Something like Tim Curry from Legend, or the titular image for Against the Darkmaster itself (which, in case any of you haven’t noticed it, is lifted directly from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books that are based on Welsh mythology)?
Moving on, it’s time to generate The Coveted Artifact, this time just a single d100 roll. I get:

Item - Amulet, Power - [redacted, in case I use it in game], Bane & Prophecy - [redacted, for the same reason]

Moving on, we roll for the Darkmaster’s Servants, which come in three types. I get:

Lieutenants: Dark Knights, Minions: Ghouls, Spies: Bats.

I think this is working well with a “Horned Ghost of Despair.” Yeah?

Finally, we need the Dark Place, the Darkmaster’s stronghold, its Mordor, its base of operations. I roll three times again, to get a Quality - Subject - Of(the):

Black - Tower - of Tears

Nice! I’m taking it.

So, in summary, when considering your character – and don’t forget to consult the partial pregens here! – you can know that the great evil in the world goes by the Epithet of The Horned Ghost of Despair. He (or she) covets an Amulet – why and what powers it has, I am leaving out, for now. He (or she) is served by Dark Knights, Ghouls, and Bats; and he (or she) dwells in the Black Tower of Tears.


“I will allow PCs to start with one extra Drive Point if one of their Passions is a direct line from a metal song” @Gabe You have just boosted this game to 11!!:metal: I already have my lyric “the fury has electrified my mind!” - Fury of the Wild - by Hammerfall.

The clarity of knowing the overarching plot but not necessarily having to deal with it head on is very appealing. I can’t wait to dig into the mighty tome.

Thank you for your passion, it can be addictive

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The Tone of Against the Darkmaster

Because of the ongoing game in which I am playing, tone in Against the Darkmaster (VsD) has been on my mind. You may have noticed some of my shared experiences here. But, not expressed in that post, I also have been observing some of the actions of my fellow PCs. And some of the reactions of their players in response to specific game mechanics. I intend not to comment on those, whether they be in or out of what I favor, but establish a little more of what I think Against the Darkmaster intends to accomplish through narrative and tone. And why I like it, of course.

It’s no secret that VsD is one of my “nostalgia” games, perhaps my chief nostalgia game, because it emulates, in part, my very first rpg: Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP). VsD’s open-ended d100 core mechanic comes right out of that (which again, comes from Rolemaster, which is a percentile system ultimately derived from AD&D and anticipating, by many, many years, the “Difficulty Class” and “skill system” presented in 3.0). But another reason why VsD is so nostalgic to me is because, with an arguably more refined sensibility than its antecedents, VsD seeks to do what that very first roleplaying game did for me. At age 12 (at least I think it was at age 12), I picked up MERP not only because I was obsessed with all of Tolkien’s works (I read The Fellowship of the Ring at least fourteen times before I finished high school) but because I was looking for some way to, as much as possible, enter into Tolkien’s subcreated world.

I will try to make this clear. Of course I was interested in experiencing a story very much like Tolkien’s, but I was even more interested in simulating what it really would be like to be in that world. That was the challenge of the game. Not only were, say, Balrogs narratively exciting to encounter, but they were damn frightening, because they will kill you. If a character in MERP encountered a Balrog and survived, that not only was a cool story but a highly notable achievement. Surviving such an encounter simply defied the odds. It was a thrill. Of course, most people didn’t survive, and this is why it’s important to be ready to run! Or…
In my current VsD game, I have seen player expectations slightly out of alignment with game and fiction expectations. My character Ganga Wyrmleaper has twice survived an encounter with a dragon – but I, Ganga’s player, in no way expected Ganga to survive! Yet I have seen other PCs likewise oppose that dragon, and I have sensed some strident player frustrations with how their attacks have been utterly ineffective, glancing off the dragon’s scales like raindrops off rooftiles. Because that’s a dragon.

(Note: Someone in Discord recently asking what is the appeal of “exploding” or open-ended rolls. On the topic of dragons, I claim that a system like VsD is able to emulate Bard’s miraculous shot into the one vulnerable part of Smaug with his Black Arrow. This was accomplished with an open-ended roll and probably no small number of Drive Points. :slight_smile: But, even then, VsD puts limits on exceptional results, i.e., every weapon has a max attack value in reference to the Attack Tables.)

This kind of play is simulationism, and I admit that VsD probably is not the most ideal game for simulating “reality.” I expect Chivalry & Sorcery or HARN are much better choices. And I own those and I am deeply interested in them. I just need to form a community around them and give them a try.

But VsD and its core mechanics are in my bones. It’s one of my nostalgia games.

So, to reapproach, I claim that VsD emulates its source fictions by being a punishing and hazardous game also while, perhaps paradoxically, expecting the PCs to act like heroes. Because that’s what heroes are. Anyone who has researched Tolkien will have encountered Tom Shippey’s books and a prime ethic in Tolkien’s fiction that is borrowed from northern culture and, specifically, Beowulf. It is this: Heroes oppose the Darkness not because they have any hope of winning – for they do not – but simply because it is the right thing to do.

So let’s establish some expectations here:

  • Some characters are “supposed” to die, but they should experience a heroic death

  • Not all hope is lost, but there is some “force” willing to aid the hero, and this is represented via Drive Points

  • There are other, ancient forces in the land, personifications of Good, whom the heroes might discover and make use of by discovering Havens

  • Combat is deadly; if one does not want to die, or if there are not some Passions at stake, it is best to avoid armed combat

This last point may be understandably paradoxical to some, and this is because the most lavishly detailed rules in the VsD Core Book is Combat. (Actually, maybe Magic is, or at least it is a close second.) I propose that these detailed combat rules are not meant to suggest that this is a “combat-heavy” game but that it is a “simulationist” game, that it wants to present, as closely as possible, and while continuing to support “gamist” considerations, what would “really happen” in armed combats.

And to that end, let me try to highlight some important differences and considerations between VsD and, in general, Rolemaster combat from the more pervasive d20 systems.


In most d20 games, armor is value often called “AC.” Quite simply, it goes like this: the better your armor, i.e., plate, the less likely you are to be hit by enemy attacks. This is not necessarily true in VsD. First, it takes time and training to be able to fight effectively in heavy armor. In VsD, this is represented by building up one’s Armor Skill. Only high Armor Skill can offset the penalties to movement skills and – most importantly, in this context – even Combat Skills that the heaviest armors provide. Second, a character in Heavy armor is more likely to be hit. What??? Yes, VsD granularizes combat. Its design is that heavier armor restricts the movements of characters dressed in it, so the characters tend to get struck more often and more easily, but that the armor, being armor, likewise protects them from the most dangerous wounds.


In d20 games, a character’s “movability” typically is wrapped into AC, i.e., a highly dexterous character enjoys another point (or, depending on the edition, two or three or more) in its Armor Class. In VsD, however, this feature is removed from the actual use of armor – to a degree. In VsD, characters have something called Defense (DEF) that is a total of their Swiftness modifier and any shield that is being used. Heavier armors actually limit how much Swiftness can be applied to DEF. So, during any VsD attack, the attacker rolls d100 (open-ended), adds his or her Combat Skill, then subtracts the target’s DEF. This resultant value then is referenced to a table according to the armor being worn by the target. Again, if the target is wearing Heavy Armor, the target is more likely to be hit (but usually take only a few Hits of “damage”). If the target is wearing No Armor or Light Armor, the attack is more likely to miss (the character has more flexibility of movement, hence is more “dodgy”) – but if it does hit, ouch!

There are a few ways that characters can increase their DEF, but the most effective – and most frequently overlooked by new VsD gamers – is Parry. To Parry in VsD, the player declares how much of the character’s Attack Bonus is not going to be used to attack but to defend. This defensive amount simply is added to the defending character’s DEF for that round of combat.


I have said that a character in Heavy Armor is more likely to be hit but to “merely” take Hits. In VsD, actual Hit Points appear to be abstract values of endurance, bruising, and bleeding. The more deadly attacks result in rolls on Critical Hit Tables. These results are more capable of Stunning characters, Bleeding characters, Injuring characters (usually a modifier to all Skill rolls, i.e., the “death spiral”), and outright Killing them. In VsD, it’s much more likely that a character will surrender or beg for mercy long before actually being killed outright. Even when a character surrenders or is given reprieve, that character very well may die anyway, from untended Bleeding damage, or be bedridden for days or weeks. The most that straight Hit Points can do to a person is Bruise them (-20 to activities at half HP) or render them unconscious (at 0 HP).

I have attempted to show how deadly, “simulationist” combat contributes to what I consider the tone of a “real” and “dangerous” adventure environment. But I want to back up just for a moment to point out a character or roleplaying feature that I didn’t find occasion to cover while looking at character creation.

VsD is a “high fantasy” game. As such, it offers a number of “demi-human” Kins for the GM to adopt into her or his campaign. I often find, in other games that contain demi-humans, that these characters “really” are just humans with special abilities. Now, to be clear, VsD can’t avoid this play tendency. But I think it has mitigated it, to a degree, with a rule that actually comes right out of MERP.

In VsD, anyone playing an Elven Kin has to put (according to the type of Elf) one of the character’s highest three attribute bonuses into Bearing. This is meant to represent Tolkien’s high, lordly, and charismatic Elves. Some people might see this as a tax. I see it as a worthy trade-out for the already-prodigious benefits the Kins enjoy. And it also, hopefully, serves as a reminder that this character is not “just a human with pointy ears” but a different type of being and one that should be roleplayed accordingly.